Data, Strategy Said Missing in Report on Goals

By Lynn Olson & Robert Rothman — October 09, 1991 12 min read
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But the effort to chart how the nation and the 50 states are doing on each of six national goals included some disputed data, they noted, and contained more gaps than answers.

Observers were particularly critical of a gap that the report’s creators did not even try to fill: the development of a strategy for reaching the targets.

“Goals are a good thing,” said Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation and a former dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But the real question for the United States is how to meet the goals. And the question of how to meet them is not illustrated here.”

The goals process began at the education “summit” in 1989, when President Bush and the nation’s governors launched a 10-year effort to improve education. Early in 1990, they agreed on six national education goals to be met by the year 2000 and pledged to report progress on meeting the goals each year until the turn of the century. “The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners,” formally released at a Washington press conference last week, marked the first attempt to fulfill that promise. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

But educators found little new information in the report card, which was hampered by a lack of available data. They said the document’s value lay more in its message than in its details.

“It’s the start of a whole new era,” said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.

“The transformation is a very essential one,” he added. “What we’re in essence trying to do is to shift from an inputs-based view of education to a measurement of outputs, or, are we really accomplishing anything?’”

Observers also praised members of the National Education Goals Panel, which produced the document, for keeping the debate about education reform alive and focused over the past two years.

Many educators had been skeptical that the governors and Bush Administration members who serve on the panel would take the goals seriously or reach agreement about how to measure progress.

Standards Crucial

In the long run, educators suggested last week, the most important contribution of the goals panel may be a growing consensus that favors creating national standards for what students should know and be able to do in each subject, along with an assessment system to match.

This past spring, the panel and the Congress created the National Council on Education Standards and Testing to assess the feasibility and desirability of creating such a system.

“I’m very pleasantly surprised that over the last two years this country has gotten to the point where... we just do now agree that we need a national assessment system,” said William Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business. “I think a lot of it is, frankly, due to the work of the goals panel.”

Observers also praised the new report for highlighting gaps in the existing system of educational measurement and suggesting ways to fill them.

“The work of identifying what needs to be collected for the future was probably the most important work of all,” said Christopher T. Cross, the executive director of the Business Roundtable’s education initiative and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education.

“What this does is provide both a framework and a mandate to move data-collection activity,” he said.

‘Grossly Misleading’?

But educators were less sanguine about the quality of some of the data that the panel chose to report.

In particular, people criticized the decision to use the achievement levels developed by the National Assessment Governing Board to describe students’ performance in mathematics.

The panel reported that fewer than 20 percent of the nation’s students were “competent” in math at the 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade levels.

A number of measurement exports have questioned the process used to develop the competency levels and suggested that they may not accurately reflect student performance.

“These numbers, which are designed to portray the overwhelming majority of our students as mathematical illiterates, are technically indefensible and grossly misleading,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Using them in the document, he asserted, cast “some outrageous stains on the integrity of this report.”

At last week’s press conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander acknowledged that "[t]here will undoubtedly be some controversy” about using the achievement levels.

But, he added, the point remains: “Most children are not learning what they need to know.”

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, also questioned the report’s use of international comparisons that were completed before the start of the school- reform movement and that have also been criticized as invalid.

“Maybe the reform movement didn’t do a damn thing,” he said, “but to rely heavily on international comparisons from before policy changes, and to assume there were no changes, are pretty much heroic assumptions.”

Everything in the ‘Sink’

Education-group leaders and key lawmakers in Washington were most critical, however, of the report’s section on the federal role in education. It placed total federal expenditures on activities and services related to the goals at $59 billion in fiscal 1991.

The report said that such spending had increased by 13 percent since 1989.

“Politics has clearly influenced the section on the federal government,” charged Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. ‘Whey included absolutely everything in the kitchen sink to get a $59-billion total.”

“I mean, civilian defense spending is even in there,” he said.

Such inclusions led Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, to assert: “This document seems primarily designed to reassure the country about whether the Bush Administration has an adequate education agenda.”

“In truth,” he said, “the federal government is making a smaller contribution to education today than it did a decade ago.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, said the data at issue were an inevitable byproduct of the composition of the goals panel. He has sponsored legislation to create an independent panel of experts to monitor the goals.

“I tie that back to the makeup of this self-appointed panel,” said Senator Bingaman, “which ensured that there would be no critique of the federal government from the outset.”

A Useful ‘Wake-up Call’?

The governors acknowledged that the report needs improvement. But they argued that it would serve nonetheless as a “wake-up call"to the nation on America’s lagging academic performance: a problem that they blamed, primarily, on a “misplaced sense of self-satisfaction” among students and parents.

There was little agreement among educators, however, about how effective a wake-up call the report was or whether more alarm bells were needed.

“The issue is not the sounding of the alarm,” said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ‘What’s what A Nation at Risk did [in 1983], and everyone has tried to gong that bell every six months since.”

Richard P. Mills, Vermont’s commissioner of education, dismissed the idea of a wake-up call as “Washington Beltway talk.”

“The national reform effort is discovering many states are already in motion,” he said.

Others said such a call was needed, but questioned whether this report had done the job.

“I don’t think people in Fresno relate to national data,” said Mr. Kirst of Stanford. “They don’t connect with them at all. When you study the conditions of children in Fresno County, you get a lot of attention in Fresno.”

Although the report card included some data on states’ progress toward the goals, those sections were relatively scant because of a lack of comparable information.

In an effort to help fill the gap, nearly all the governors last week issued reports on their own states’ performance and efforts to achieve the goals. (See story, page 19.)

Some observers hoped that the release of the state-level reports--and the potential to develop data on a community-by-community and student-by-student basis--would eventually build a fire under the American public.

But they conceded that it would be a long and painful process.

“This is a deeply slumbering society,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. “You can set off a bell, another bell, a buzzer, and a cold washcloth. That doesn’t mean you’ll produce alertness.”

‘Hanging Onto Illusions’

And while the goals panelists tried to emphasize that everyone in America is in trouble educationally-not just poor and minority students--educators said that message has not gotten through.

“The American white middle class, which feels that it has earned its way to the suburbs, is hanging onto the illusion that they’re O.K. ,” said Martin Lipton, an English teacher at Calabasas High School in Calabasas, Calif., and a co-author of Making the Best of Schools: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers.

Some even suggested that one more disapproving report about the state of American education could do more harm than good for the morale of teachers and principals.

Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction in California, said the panel’s criticisms of student performance ignored the improvements that have occurred over the past decade.

“If we make gains, somebody has got to say, ‘Nice work, guys,’ to teachers and principals,” he said. “We shouldn’t dismiss [gains] as if they never happened.”

Reform Strategy Needed

Even if the report succeeds in waking up the public, many educators cautioned, it will do little good without a coherent strategy to improve matters.

The governors and the Administration made it clear that the goals panel would leave decisions about how to raise educational performance to individual states.

“What the report doesn’t do and won’t do is to dictate policies and programs to the states,” said Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the chairman of the goals panel.

But educators questioned the wisdom of that resolve.

“If you call people to wake them up,” Mr. Kirst said, “you’d better suggest a few things to do once they get out of bed.”

“At the moment,” Mr. Boyer said, “I don’t think anyone, certainly, is devoting as much attention and energy to the steps for implementing the goals” as they are to the monitoring process.

“We have a national agenda for education,” he added, “but we don’t have a national structure to deliver.”

‘No One Policy’

Just how important that national infrastructure will prove remains open to question.

“Some people say unless you have a national plan, you’re not taking matters seriously,” said Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University who chairs the Coalition of Essential Schools.

“I think that’s a non sequitur,” he said. “We take all sorts of things seriously without trying to create a clearly defined national direction.”

“Far more important,” Mr. Sizer asserted, “are plans at the kid level in communities and neighborhoods and schools.”

“Really, all they can do at the national level is focus on the problem,” agreed James W. Dyke Jr., Virginia’s secretary of education. “It’s up to states and local governments to implement [reforms]. There is no one policy for all states.”

Mr. Newman said the E.c .s. is now working with state officials to coordinate their efforts.

“Roy Romer [the Colorado Governor who formerly chaired the goals panel] has been asking the question, “Where’s the war room?’” he said. “I think that’s a bad analogy, because educators hate it. But he’s absolutely right.”

“Everybody agrees the war room is at each of the 50 states,” Mr. Newman added. “And our big agenda at the moment is to get a coherent, comprehensive plan that pulls all this together at each state.”

“Otherwise,” he warned, “it’s a bunch of interesting efforts all going off in different directions.”

Goals Still Unknown

To date, educators noted, the effort to set and reach national goals has had little effect on local communities. (‘See related story, page i.)

“A lot of people in a lot of schools wouldn’t know what the national goals are,” said Phillip C. Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform.

In other instances, administrators, school-board members, and teachers said, the national goals have encouraged communities to set local targets or to develop longrange plans, but many of those efforts are only loosely coupled to the national agenda.

And several of those interviewed said that, given the lingering economic downturn, talk about lofty goals seemed both far away and inappropriate.

“I think all our budget cuts are what’s really capturing the attention of people,” said Carolyn A. Zenoniani, principal of Caloosa Elementary School in Cape Coral, Fla., “because we’re beginning to feel that a lot.”

A Question of Money?

The governors themselves remain divided over the issue of whether more money is needed to help reach the goals.

Governor Romer, a Democrat who stepped down as head of the goals panel in August, said: “I think in education we’ve got to lay this one on the line. I think we need more results, but we’ve got to get more resources. It’s both.”

But Gov. John Ashcroft of Missouri, a Republican, said it would be “foolish to suggest that every state needs to raise its taxes.”

“There will be cases where we need to redeploy our resources rather than to increase or to raise them,” he argued.

One area where more money and effort clearly is needed, educators said, is in the collection of national and state-level data.

But they cautioned that, while the goals report laid out a number of data gaps, it did not specify who would pay for filling them.

‘Starvation Budget’

“I will say flat out that the federal budget for statistics and achievement information is a starvation budget,” said Mr. Arebach of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“If there’s one message from this report,” he added, “it is that the federal government will have to absolutely beefup its overall support for the collection of information both on a nationwide and on a state-by-state basis.”

Mr. Newman of the Education Commission of the States noted that a number of states--including California, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Vermont--have been working to strengthen their data-collection systems. But, he added, “frankly, the federal government has got to do much more here.”

“I think we’re going to look back on this report card as, ‘That wasn’t a Model-T, that was a horse-and buggy,’” Mr. Newman said. “But [it’s] a start.”

The question some are now asking is how much the governors and the President can maintain their spirit of bipartisan cooperation in the coming election year.

“I think the fact that we’re heading into an election year makes it increasingly difficult for a bipartisan group of governors and the President to come up with a single unified plan,” Mr. Sizer of Brown said.

“Education is going to be a major issue in November of ‘92,” he predicted, “and I think it would be unrealistic to therefore expect a widely agreed-upon federal, state, and locality action plan.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Data, Strategy Said Missing in Report on Goals


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